How Will Turkey Exploit its Economic Presence in Northern Syria?
Wednesday, December 26, 2018
Turkey has recently stepped up its economic presence in the cities of northern Syria, including Al-Bab, Jarablus, and Azaz, among others. Those cities are now controlled by the Syrian opposition with the assistance of the Turkish army through two military operations between 2016 and 2018 dubbed Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. Turkey has worked to rehabilitate the basic services of electricity, education and health in these cities in cooperation with private Turkish companies, as well as promoting the export of various goods to these cities. Through its presence there, Turkey is aiming to achieve numerous goals in line with its vision towards the trajectories of the Syrian conflict, and its position, in the coming phase.
According to various analysts, Turkey has provided support for anti-Assad regime parties since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, due to various considerations. Such considerations are not limited to the Turkish opposition to Assad policies in handling the conflict, as reflected in its direct military intervention in Syria through two military operations, so far, Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 and Operation Olive Branch in January 2018.
Turkey believes that its military intervention in Syria is necessary to curb Kurdish militias such as the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), based in northern Syria, which it considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The Turkish direct military intervention in Syria has numerous repercussions, which will be put to various tests after US President Donald Trump announced, on December 19, the withdrawal of his forces from Syria, especially from the SDF-controlled areas in the east of the Euphrates.
Several indicators demonstrate the increasing Turkish economic presence in the northern regions of Syria, which can be outlined as follows:
1- Provision of basic services: After the Turkish-backed military militias controlled some of Aleppo’s towns and countryside, Ankara has moved to rehabilitate the infrastructure of these areas and provide the basic services, such as water, electricity, health and education. Turkish companies have re-supplied electricity to cities such as Azaz, Al-Bab and Jarablus, in addition to building healthcare centers and hospitals.
Remarkably, Turkey was keen to establish land corridors between these cities and the nearby Turkish border provinces. These cities have also been linked to Turkish telecom services. Turk Telekom, the state-owned Turkish telecommunications company, established communications towers in the cities of Al-Bab, Azaz and Jarablus to connect them to the Turkish network. Moreover, the Turkish Post Corporation established branches there.
2- A greater role for Turkish companies: Numerous Turkish companies took part in the implementation of infrastructure rehabilitation projects in northern Syria, under contracts with the local councils of these cities, most notably a project to provide 30 megawatts of electricity in Azaz implemented by AK Energy, a Turkish company, and a cement plant in Al-Bab in cooperation with Euro Beton.
In another attempt to boost the Turkish private sector’s role in northern Syria, the Association of Independent Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists (Musayad) opened an office in Azaz last November. This company could possibly serve as a focal point between the Turkish private sector and local councils to support the participation of the former in more infrastructure rehabilitation projects in the coming period.
3- Growing Turkish exports: Although the Syrian Ministry of Economy issued a ban in 2015 on products of a Turkish origin or those containing a Turkish component, this did not prevent the Turkish goods from entering the Syrian market. According to the Syrian Consumer Protection Association, about 20 per cent of the food in the Syrian markets are of Turkish origin and 30 per cent of garments are imported from Turkey.
This can be attributed to the fact that Turkish goods are still one of the easy options to meet the needs of the Syrian market, given the difficulties of importing from other countries around the world. The growing Turkish influence in northern Syria will surely increase the influx of Turkish goods. Numerous reports cite cities such as Azaz, Al-Bab, Jarablus, Tal Abyad, Manbij and Aleppo countryside, as the main destination of Turkish goods.
Turkey is consolidating its economic presence in northern Syria to achieve several goals: Firstly, winning the “hearts and minds” of local communities in these cities, and hence entrench its military and strategic influence in these areas. Secondly, providing the necessity goods that will enable the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey to these areas.
According to the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, the number of Syrians who returned to Syria from Turkey following the Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch amounted to some 291.7 thousand refugees. While this estimate may be somewhat exaggerated, this does not negate the fact that the repatriation of Syrian refugees is currently a priority for Turkey in order to ease the economic burdens of hosting them.
Thirdly, by cementing its links with local communities and city councils, Turkey is seeking to boost its investment there and reinforce the participation of Turkish companies in future reconstruction projects. Thus, this will allow the Turkish economy to make considerable commercial gains and increase their share of exports in the Syrian market.
Fourthly, Turkey seeks to consolidate its presence in Syria on the long run. Ankara believes that providing the basic services and the presence of its companies there will increase its ability to participate in the de facto management of these areas, allowing it to achieve future political and geostrategic gains.
To conclude, the perpetuation of the Syrian conflict, along with with the start of the US withdrawal from the north, are set to give Turkey more room to boost its military and economic influence in Syria in the coming period, which would dampen the chances of reaching a settlement to the Syrian crisis.